UMD researcher part of breakthrough of new agricultural tool used to monitor droughts

Keep your thumb green, and your plants even greener with this latest piece of drought-monitoring technology, researched right in the University of Maryland’s backyard.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) partnered with UMD to make the Evaporative Stress Index (ESI), an agricultural tool that tracks drought conditions throughout North America.

Christopher Hain, an assistant research scientist at UMD’s Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center (ESSIC), was particularly responsible in helping with the product’s development.

“You develop a tool from a research sampling, try to figure out if it’s accurate, and then try to find people who actively need to use it,” Hain said.

According to Hain, this research tool has actually been in development for the eight to 10 years. The final step of the process converted all the research into a tool for decision-makers to monitor drought conditions in primarily agricultural areas.

ESI collects data by means of the “convergence of evidence” principle, meaning you can take “all these different data sets and different indicators,” to confirm that “a lot of things are agreeing in one direction,” according to Hain.

Molly Brown, who is an associate professor in UMD’s Department of Geographical Sciences, says the drought tool was based mainly on the concept of evapotranspiration, or “the amount of evaporation from the ground because of the temperature and humidity.

According to Brown, ESI is an innovative tool regarding climate change, because it incorporates the role of temperature, and more often than not, only precipitation is measured in models similar to this one.

“If you have too much rain today, and no rain at all for six weeks, you still have dead plants because the rain needs to be well distributed,” Brown said. “This is a great product for understanding the role of temperature and the role of distribution of water throughout the season.”

Brown says, however, that users may have a bit of a hard time interpreting the tool and evaluating its accuracy, because it is only a “modeled output.”

“It’s hard to know how good the measurements are because it’s difficult to measure evaporated stress with an instrument; there’s no data set out there that gives you that parameter,” Brown said. “While the product is far more related to the kinds of droughts important to people, it makes it difficult to interpret the information across a whole bunch of environments. If you go to the tundra or southern Mexico, the meaning of the map’s red/green ‘blobs’ might change.”

At the same time, she noted that it does not necessarily matter whether or not those “blobs” mean anything, because very few people live in these areas, and there is very little agriculture there.

“I do think it’s a much stronger product than some of these other drought monitoring systems,” Brown said. “This one really is a good innovation.”

“I think this drought warning system is a huge step forward in terms of drought management,” sophomore Environmental Science major Jon Shay said. “If it could expand to a worldwide system, then it could be crucial in the future where droughts will be more prevalent due to global warming.”

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